OPM Issues Guidance on How Federal Agencies Can Expand Internship Programs

interns wanted

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has a vision for building the type of “exceptional” internship programs that will help make the federal government a model employer.

The OPM shares this vision in its just-released guidance on how agencies can increase opportunities for paid internships, fellowships, apprenticeships and other student and early career programs in the federal government.

The direction is designed to advance the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) and boost the government’s ability to recruit, hire, develop, promote and retain top talent, as outlined in a 2021 executive order spelling out the need to strengthen the federal workforce by promoting diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.

The new guidance puts forth a number of recommendations for federal agencies, such as increasing the number of interns, fellows, apprentices and early career hires across the federal government; better coordinating and funding strategic federal internship, fellowships and early career hiring programs; and holding senior leaders accountable to using federal internship, fellowship and early career hiring programs to build an inclusive and diverse federal workforce talent pipeline.

Critical Pathways to Federal Service

Federal internship programs “have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of participants over the last decade,” wrote Government Executive’s Erich Wagner.

The Biden administration has made clear that it’s prioritizing the revitalization of these programs. The recently released OPM guidance states that, per the President’s fiscal year 2023 budget, agencies have committed to hiring more than 35,000 interns in the coming year.

And, as Wagner pointed out, the OPM issued regulations in 2021 with the intention of making it easier for agencies to hire college students and recent graduates, with officials also announcing last year that all White House internships would be paid as of fall 2022. 

Paid internships are “a key piece of the administration’s diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility strategic plan,” Wagner wrote, “as unpaid internships often effectively exclude applicants from minority and other underserved communities who cannot afford to work without pay.”

Internships are a “critical pathway to federal service,” the guidance states, allowing individuals working on a four-year degree, learning a trade, studying at community college or participating in other qualifying programs to “gain valuable work experience and see what it is like to work for the federal government and contribute to important missions.”  

Internship opportunities are “mutually beneficial” arrangements, the OPM added, as interns gain a change to demonstrate their talents and potential, “while offering agencies time to evaluate their skills and abilities, as they receive the benefits of contributions the intern makes to their teams.”

For many, however, “an internship that does not offer any form of compensation (e.g., housing stipends, recruitment incentives or financial arrangements with third-party organizations) is the illusion of opportunity, further complicated by the practical needs of having a paying job while not enrolled in traditional coursework,” the OPM writes in the new guidance.

Stronger internship programs in turn enable federal agencies to improve the quality of the services they provide, said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja in a statement summarizing the new guidance.

“By increasing opportunities and removing barriers to hiring interns, fellows and apprentices,” said Ahuja, “federal agencies can boost their talent pipelines and better serve the American people.”

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